Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Friday, May 01, 2009

More on OA journals which offer gratis but not libre OA

Bill Hooker, Open Access, copyright transfer and NC licensing: caveat emptor!  Open Reading Frame, May 1, 2009.  Excerpt:

When I was rummaging around in J Vis a while back, I noticed something that I've been meaning to blog about: why is an Open Access journal still requiring complete surrender of author copyright [1]?

I happen to know one answer to that question, though I don't know whether this is the case at J Vis. The deal is this: Big Publishing sells paper reprints, and not just of their own articles -- they pay fees where necessary in order to provide a one-stop shop (e.g. through Excerpta Medica or Ovid), mainly to the pharmaceutical industry. In order to blanket existing and potential customers with research favorable to their causes, pharm companies spend a great deal of money on these reprints -- some of which trickles down to small publishers, some of whom depend on that revenue. Such publishers therefore cannot afford to give up such rights as force the reprint traders to pay for their wares....

Why do I care about this? Because it's another instance of the old "Free is not Open" argument, and the problems discussed here and here. Since digital repositories -- as far as I know, all existing digital repositories -- carry no blanket license, but leave intact the licensing of each individual digital object they contain, the effect is that there are no OA repositories that remove both price and permission barriers (that is, provide "strong" or "libre" OA to their contents)....

Consider, for instance, PubMed Central, all the papers in which are free to read. What else can you do with them? Textmining, datamining? As far as I can tell, the answer is no, you can't do any of that -- because whatever you want to do, some papers will be licensed to allow it and some won't. Barring some way to reach agreements with dozens or perhaps hundreds of publishers and pre-sort millions of papers on the basis of licensing, the entire PMC barrel is spoiled by the copyrighted, NC and similar apples -- though there is a much smaller uncontaminated barrel available [4].

Which brings me, at long last, to my title. Why "caveat emptor"? Well, if you're buying Open Access -- that is, publishing with a journal that charges author-side fees (remember, most don't), make sure you're getting value for your money! If the journal demands your copyright, or slaps a NC license on your work before distributing it, you should know that many possible downstream uses for your work are being pre-emptively eliminated. Are you sure that's what you want?


  • I'm sure Bill is right that some OA journals offering gratis OA rather than libre OA are hoping to sell reprints.  It restricts use, re-use, and users, but at least it's a reason and at least it provides a revenue stream to support the journal's expenses.  I suspect that some gratis OA journals don't have this motive, don't have any articulate motive, mistakenly believe that all OA is gratis OA, and never thought about libre OA or its benefits.  I wish we had a good study of how many OA journals offer merely gratis OA and why.
  • I also wish we had good clarity on whether data- and text-mining require libre OA.  See some past blog discussion of this question (1, 2, 3) and the current discussion at LibLicense.
  • I fully support Bill's final caveat and recommendation.  I recently argued that "funders [and universities and authors] should demand libre OA when they pay for publication, not just for research."